FDA Considers New Label Requirements

Published October 30, 2014

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is proposing an update to requirements regarding nutritional labels on food, which it claims will help consumers maintain healthy dietary practices. The current format for nutritional labels has been in place for more than 20 years.

But critics say the FDA has provided little evidence it would improve diets around the country, and the FDA estimates the changes would cost the food industry $2.3 billion. Those costs are likely to be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices.

That $2.3 billion may be just the starting point of cost increases, state two researchers who’ve studyied the issue. “The methods used to estimate this figure … are not transparent, with many apparently speculative assumptions used for major cost categories,” write Sherzod Abdukadirov, a research fellow in the Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and Robert Scharff, associate professor of Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University, in a recent report published in Regulation magazine.

Abdukadirov and Scharff also note “several cost categories are simply omitted,” such as “costs to government for enforcing the rule, costs to industry from changing package sizes in response to the rule, and recordkeeping costs to suppliers of ingredients that have added sugars included.”

Sugars, Serving Size Targeted

Among the proposed changes, the FDA would require information about “added sugars” be included, update serving size requirements and make calories and serving sizes more prominent on the packages. The FDA is expected to act within two years.

The FDA states that many of the labeling from 20 years ago is out of date. For example, the FDA says that serving sizes must be based on amounts of food and drink people “customarily consume, not on what people should be eating.”

The FDA also observes that people are eating more today than 20 years ago so the current serving sizes as well as the amount of calories and nutrients that are connected to serving sizes are out of date, and as a result wants to change some food products that were listed as more than one serving to a single serving because people typically eat or drink them in one sitting.

Value of Changes Questioned

Abdukadirov told Health Care News the proposed changes would be unlikely to curb obesity or improve public health, and the FDA offered little evidence the proposed changes would have the effects they intend.

In fact, he said, the unintended consequences could create other types of problems. For example, the analysis he prepared with Scharff concludes the FDA’s proposal to require putting the words “added sugars” on labels is unfounded. “The FDA provides little evidence that adding a separate line for added sugars would yield any health benefits,” they wrote.

Abdukadirov said including the line “added sugars” on labels could make consumers try products that don’t have the “added sugars” label but instead have a higher content of natural sugars. “You could be making people more obese,” Abdukadirov said.

The analysis concludes the FDA should shelve any labeling changes until it can show they would have “tangible and measurable benefits.”

Food Bans Coming?

Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at the Heritage Foundation, said it would be a bad assumption to think the federal government has a good understanding of nutrition.

“They are trying to change consumer behavior,” Bakst said. “It starts out with the government educating. OK. What if the public isn’t doing what we want? We have to go to the next step—the labeling. The next step might be a ban or might be restrictions.”

Bakst says the FDA might target more foods, such as trans-fats, if the government doesn’t think labeling is effective. The FDA has made a preliminary determination partially hydrogenated oils are no longer generally recognized as safe. If the FDA finalizes that determination, companies won’t be able to use partially hydrogenated oils in products without approval from the FDA.

Tom Gantert ([email protected]) writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential.